Harvard Prof. Says Placebo Effect More Powerful And Useful Than We Imagine

Dec 21, 2012

Sugar pills in a case
The act of taking pills is one part of the complex mental reward system known as the placebo effect.
Credit Flickr Photo/pig pog s

Before 1970, doctors used to lie to their patients all the time. They knew that some hypochondriacs became noticeably better when doctors gave them a sugar pill.

This was called "the placebo effect." After 1970, we thought of placebos differently. Researchers decided that for a drug to be deemed effective, it had to outperform a placebo. But we never stepped back and took a good hard look at the placebo and why it worked.

Harvard researcher Ted Kaptchuck has done that. He says the placebo effect can be administered like a drug, in different doses and achieve different results. He says the ritual of medicine — from the act of taking a pill, to whether the doctor stares thoughtfully into the distance while examining you — is far more than a placebo. This ritual can be used to increase the effectiveness of modern drugs.

Medicine is not all in the mind; we can't heal broken bones by thinking happy thoughts. But medicine may be more mental than we realize. Ted Kaptchuck speaks with David Hyde.